Missouri Historical Society
Gateway Heritage, Spring 2002, 22 # 4: 63
Reviewed by Frederick A. Hodes
Cher Oncle, Cher Papa: The Letters of Francois
and Berenice Chouteau
by Dorothy Brandt Marra (Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City, 404 pages, $24.95 paper)
Life on the American western frontier of the 1830s comes alive through this collection of letters from François Chouteau, Pierre Chouteau, Sr.'s eldest son by his second wife, and François's wife, Berenice Menard, to her father, Pierre Menard. Marra does an excellent job of placing each letter in context, explaining the myriad names and references and concluding with fifty pages of glossary. This mostly business correspondence concerns François and his activities as part of the American Fur Company's Western Department, headed by half-brother Pierre Chouteau, Jr. At the future site of Kansas City, François traded with the local Kansas tribe and the newly arriving tribes displaced from the east.
A sub-theme centers on the family's place in the beginnings of Kansas City, describing Berenice, the children, and their challenges. Marra emphasizes how well suited Berenice is for this life on the frontier. As the daughter of Kaskaskia's Pierre Menard, she grew up with American Indian trade concerns and was accustomed to having Indians appear on the front porch looking for her father.
The letters bring to life the tensions between the Indian trader and the Indian agent and underscore the changing nature of American Indian policy as the United States replaced traditional presents with "annuities." The tribes François dealt with were the same ones his father and earlier French had befriended. His concern for fairness reveals why the native nations preferred to deal with the French. This commerce proved a struggle, because too many traders competed in this limited market.
Scholars will find the book highly valuable for its detailed examination of Indian relations and the fur trade. General readers will enjoy its view of the joys and sorrows of life on the frontier.